Burchill’s bigoted rant has no place in the Observer

Picture of David Bowie from 1973; a picture of a white man in a red top with a turcquoise feather thing wrapped round his chest, and various other brightly-coloured accoutrements.Today the Observer posted an article by Julie Burchill, a right-wing columnist given to bigoted rants laden with gratuitous slurs, against the transsexual “lobby” in response to the supposed bullying of Suzanne Moore, a long-standing Guardian columnist, who published an article on female anger in the New Statesman which included a comment that women “are angry with [themselves] for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual”, which many people took offence to partly because it implied that transsexuals are not real women, and partly because Brazilian transsexuals are the subject of much violence, including murder. Moore remained unapologetic, published another article (this time in the Guardian) which appeared to compare them to David Bowie (who isn’t one) and called for people to focus on what “really matters” like opposing cuts and the collapse of the social contract. Then, Burchill weighed in last night, and the piece appeared in the print edition and, under a sub-heading telling “those who feel oppressed” not to bully others in turn, contained:

Though I imagine it to be something akin to being savaged by a dead sheep, as Denis Healey had it of Geoffrey Howe, I nevertheless felt indignant that a woman of such style and substance should be driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing.

To my mind – I have given cool-headed consideration to the matter – a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look. That rude and ridic.

Julie Burchill has form, and when the favourite media target was Muslims, she was quite ready with slurs and stereotypes about us. During the 2006 niqaab debate, for example, she made the following observation about female converts who wear the veil:

I don’t blame women born into Islamic families for wearing the veil. They are prisoners, pure and simple; and as the growing rate of Muslim ‘honour’ killings in this country proves, the slightest show of spirit on their part often provokes a violent response from the very men who should be their champions and protectors … When I see a dumb, white bitch convert wearing Islamic dress, I feel massive revulsion and contempt, as they have actually chosen enslavement.

I wonder what she thinks when she sees a black woman in niqaab (most of them are also converts; very few African Muslim women, outside a couple of corners of Kenya, wear it). But you can’t put “black bitch” in a national newspaper, whether you’re talking about Muslim women or anyone else. Or how about the reference to “big swarthy men with tea-towels on their heads” in this piece in Haaretz which called journalists critical of Israel “a bunch of snatched-body zombies who look like journalists but believe and say the most inhuman, evil things”. Or the article about Abu Ghraib in 2004 (in the Times, which is paywalled but the offending passage is widely reproduced), in which she remarked that the picture of Lynndie England holding an Iraqi prisoner with a dog leash round his neck “made a change to see a woman treating a man like a dog in a Muslim country” (rather than the other way round).

In today’s article, titled Transsexuals should cut it out, she emphasises her personal connections to Moore, including being godmother to her three daughters, then (after the extract at the top of this entry) she accuses “the trans lobby” of persecuting another of her friends, “the veteran women’s rights and anti-domestic violence activist Julie Bindel” (who also has a sideline in anti-trans activism) “picketing events where she is speaking about such minor issues as the rape of children and the trafficking of women just because she refuses to accept that their relationship with their phantom limb is the most pressing problem that women – real and imagined – are facing right now”. She also accuses trans activists of arguing over semantics and being “educated beyond all common sense”, while Burchill, Bindel and Moore are “part of the minority of women of working-class origin to make it in what used to be called Fleet Street [which] partly contributes to the stand-off with the trannies”. She ends on a threatening note:

Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging Phds as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment and many of us are now staring HRT and the menopause straight in the face – and still not flinching. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.

There have been some people in the trans community who have conceded that some of the attacks on Suzanne Moore on Twitter (she has since closed down her account) were excessive and amounted to bullying, and I do not necessarily think it is anyone’s duty to back down if told that what they have said is offensive, as such claims can be false (as with the “Juneteenth” affair in 2010, in which a group of feminist activists were accused of racism for arranging an event on 19th June that was for other than that celebration), but some of the claims coming from Moore and her supporters are unfair. It is not true that trans activists do not campaign against the government’s social security cuts, for example. Not everyone in the “intersectional” feminist camp is an academic, or has “swinging PhDs”; intersectionality means the fact that people who may be privileged in one area (like race or class) may be disadvantaged in others (like gender or disability). In fact, not everyone who accepts the principle of intersectionality is even a feminist. There is also a widespread assumption that any woman who defends transsexuals and insists that they are in fact women must be a transsexual herself, which is not in fact true at all.

I don’t object to Burchill’s article being in the Observer because it’s a defence of Moore, or because it is unaccepting of transsexualism as such. There are ways of expressing these ideas that do not resort to boorish insults and hate-incitement, much as there are ways of advocating reductions in welfare or health spending which do not characterise recipients as scroungers. I have never been an advocate of censoring ideas or opinions, but if newspapers commonly peddle material that is prominent, strident and inaccurate, and casts aspersions on either an individual or a group, then there should be sanction. This article by Burchill would be quite at home in the Daily Express or another tabloid, and it is those papers which have peddled prominent, strident lies and distortions about first Muslims, then welfare recipients, and sometimes Gypsies and Travellers in between, for longer than I have been monitoring the situation. The danger of allowing this to go unchecked can be seen in Rwanda in the early 1990s, when newspapers and radio progressed from “Hutu power” to “kill the cockroaches” (Tutsis), which their readers promptly did.

But it wasn’t in the Daily Spew; it was in the Observer, and much as I’ve disagreed with most of their opinion output over the years, I’ve never seen a piece as openly bigoted as this, using terms entirely out of keeping with the newspaper’s style, and not even by a current regular contributor. It is not entirely unlike the way the media normally responds when someone they know and understand is under attack from what they see as a mob of those they do not (in this case the transsexual and transgender community, but in the recent past, also the ME community in the case of Simon Wessely, and Muslims demanding a ban on The Satanic Verses in the past), but rarely do they allow the use of one slur after another. We do not buy the Guardian or the Observer to read this junk; we read it because we believe it to be a rational newspaper that prints sober and intelligent analysis and commentary. In a newspaper whose price goes up year on year, and which gets thinner and thinner at the same time, it is also offensive that such nonsense was printed in place of something reasonable. Do not bother complaining to Burchill as she will either ignore it, let some hireling screen it out, or use it as material for mockery. Complain to the Reader’s Editor. Burchill’s article is hate speech and is totally out of keeping with the paper’s style, and with enough pressure they will most likely come to their senses.

(The Observer’s editor tweeted earlier this afternoon: “Have seen comments re Burchill’s piece. Observer takes such reactions v seriously. Have asked Readers’ Editor to consider issues & respond”.)

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  • Nicholas

    ”’…and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual’, which many people took offence to partly because it implied that transsexuals are not real women, and partly because Brazilian transsexuals are the subject of much violence, including murder…

    I enjoy a lot of your media watching, but what kind of clouded intellectual leakage is this? From reading your snippets, she was talking about ideal body shape. That’s it. It doesn’t imply anything beyond that. You know what, a lot (not all, but a lot) of folks crying “hate speech” anytime are among the most destructive forces in society.

    Yeah some of other writings are unfortunately off-base and edgy. But this good-or-bad nonce you hang on to is limiting. I mean, the Guardian prints all sorts of ill-informed, incorrect, unverified, manipulative garbage. Some you lap up (Syria), some makes you recoil. It looks like unhealthy entertainment from here.

  • Amy

    Yes, thank you. This is a calm response which almost completely exemplifies my feelings on the issue. Personally, I didn’t think there was much wrong with the original Suzanne Moore comment - it read to me more as a flippant remark than deliberately offensive. It was Moore’s rude and defensive response which caused the problem - and even that anger could probably have been defended, but not by Burchill’s hate-speech disguised as an article. She wasn’t even making any points, and just seemed to be trying to fit as many slurs into one piece as possible.

  • I’m not sure what you mean by “this good or bad nonce” — a nonce is either a “number used once”, a computer term referring to a numerical identifier, or a child abuser. What do you mean by it?

    The “hate speech” label is applied to Burchill’s article, not (at least by me) to anything Suzanne Moore wrote. If someone had defended Suzanne Moore and not used several examples of abusive language, I would not have objected; I objected to Burchill’s piece which contained one insult against trans people in general after another. I did not, in fact, get involved in this issue at all until after reading Burchill’s article. The transsexual/transgender community’s argument with Moore is something I was not involved in.

  • Nicholas

    Sorry for the confusion, I simply meant it as shorthand for “nonsense”, and I didn’t mean to pin anything on you here. Your report shows how quickly things get super polarised. I wouldn’t (if I were to criticise the journos) trip off any of their throwaway comments; they simply seemed designed for shock effect. Hate? Um, not really. Just spitefulness.